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Pat Smith Join Pat Smith, professor of engineering at OC, as he demonstrates and discusses the real difference you can make as a real engineer and real Christian.

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Why stay in engineering?
Why do students leave engineering?
Engineers and Christmas
Freshmen Putters!
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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Why stay in engineering?

If, as has been widely written and I’ve told many incoming engineers, engineering is a difficult study with more homework than the average major, what kinds of counterweights could be provided to encourage students to hang in there?

Several years ago Dr. Bigelow and myself discussed the (probably oversimplified idea) that there are probably a group of students in every class that will survive no matter what they encounter. They’re extremely gifted, or they are really dedicated and will work an extra 10 hour if that’s what it takes.  These students will make it through an engineering degree program almost no matter what.  Conversely there are probably some students who struggle with the material, they don’t find it interesting or it’s very difficult to acquire the knowledge at the pace delivered in a typical calculus based physics class or electrical circuits class.  These students probably will change majors within the first year and whether it’s due to discovering engineering isn’t their “cup of tea” or poor study habits leading to bad grades, they probably won’t stay in engineering and that might be the best choice for them.

But what about those students in the middle? Why do they change majors? What causes them to decide not to stay in engineering?

As we thought more about these students we began to think about what we’d seen and ask what could we do to address it in the freshmen year?  While this isn’t a complete listing of all of our secrets, here are a few of the things we noted and some things we tried to do to counter it.

First we noted that often times the tone from the faculty of engineering programs is “This is tough, and only the tough will survive.  Good luck and we’ll see you if and when you’re successful with your math and science classes.”  We wondered what would happen if the tone sounded more like this, “This is tough, and you’re going to have to work hard to succeed—but you can do it and we’re going to help you develop the skills and habits it will take!  So keep working, don’t give up, and remember—we believe you can make it!” 

If that message is going to have an impact then it would have to be sincere and it would have to be delivered and reinforced both in words and action.  Fortunately both Dr. Bigelow and I co-teach the first two classes engineers take during their freshmen year.  We realized we could begin trying to communicate that during that year, and if we were watching carefully for students beginning to struggle, we’d be able to try to encourage them, challenge them, and coach them to develop the habits, maturity and skills they needed to make it through the system.

We believe this was an important first step towards changing the retention in our program, but it’s not the only one… On Friday I’ll share another important thing we have done and at some point in the next few days (after we check the data) I’ll show you a graph of retention for our program that is in contrast to the “norm…”

Stay tuned… It’s some interesting stuff…

Monday, January 23, 2012

Why do students leave engineering?

One of the things that we are very happy about (you might say proud, except pride is a vice and we don’t want to advertise that we are “proud”.. but I suppose we are.. really) is our retention rate in the Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) department.  Over the last several years we’ve had the highest retention rate of any department on campus - and that’s in a major that nationally is among the lowest in retention rates. 

There’s an interesting article in the New York Times titled “Why Students Leave the Engineering Track” today and it offers several possible reasons.  Among them are the lower grades typically earned in the difficult science and engineering classes.  Perhaps it’s the higher workload relative to other majors? Maybe it’s the lack of role models, mentors, and other encouragement? 

The chart above is from a study cited by the blog in the NYT, and it shows pretty clearly that the retention rate for engineering majors is not that good.

It’s likely that all of these factors play a role, but my experience here tells me there are three major reasons why students change majors out of engineering.  There are of course as many possibilities as there are personalities, but here are the three I’ve seen most frequently.

1. Engineering majors have less free time than their peers in other majors.  This becomes a discouragement as friends in the dorm and student apartments are organizing social activities and the engineers are ‘left out’ if they choose to keep working on “Maher’s circuit problems”.  Eventually some students simply decide they don’t want to miss those social opportunities and they do less work by changing majors.  Some, however, do less work first and this leads to the second reason.

2. Poor grades resulting not from lack of ability, but from lack of time given to the task.  Eventually some students spend less time on homework and outside-of-class preparation.  This leads to poor grade performance on homework, projects, and most deadly of all - exams.  Many of these students are strong academic performers and have always achieved at a high level, many without having to work as hard as their peers.  Will they change their strategy when faced with stronger challenges?  Some do not.  When the weaker grades result they decide they don’t want to do “this” (engineering) any more and change majors. 

3. Discovery that they really don’t like the kind of work engineers do.  There is another group that finds out they’d rather do pure math, or computer science, or marketing.  These students thought they’d like engineering, but when they were able to start it turned out they really didn’t enjoy it all.

All three reasons (and others of course) probably work together in different amounts for all students. 

So… if that’s the national trend, what are we doing in the OC ECE department that’s bucking that trend?  Like the causes I listed above, the counter-weights are multiple and work together.  They involve faculty committed to encouraging students and supporting them (without reducing the workload), fostering strong relationships between students from the freshmen year forward, and engaging students in interesting projects from the freshmen year forward… I’ll write more about this again in the next couple of days!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Engineers and Christmas

Ho! Ho! Ho!  Meeeeeerry Christmas!

A short note to demonstrate that engineers love Christmas, even enough to make sure that we use expensive technical gear to produce… well simple and enjoyable results.

This last week one of our graduates who is in grad school now found a way to generate a signal using sounds that, when mapped on an oscilloscope would paint the picture of a Christmas Tree… Ah, its’ good to know that all that electrical engineering training isn’t going to waste!  Here’s the picture! Have a great Christmas (and thanks Nate for letting me use the pic!)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Freshmen Putters!

Last week the freshmen participated in the final putt of the fall, the end of the competition! And so it was that we met in the Atrium in the PEC where hot chocolate, “juice”, donuts, and the Minotaur’s maze waited!  The table, shown below, held a simple putt.

Before the putting competition it was time to have a donut and get your pic with your putter.  Here’s a couple of students!

And here’s the winning putt!

The freshmen class is a great group of young people and I’m really looking forward to the spring semester, when we’ll build the fundamentals robots!  Keep your eye on this space for an interesting holiday thing you can do with an oscilloscope!


Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Freshmen Pay Their Debts…

A couple of weeks ago the Freshmen ECE class played a little coin tossing game with Professor Bigelow and myself.  It was all very educational I assure you!  we were learning about programming loop mechanisms so we played a game where we were ‘tossing a coin’ (the computer did the tossing for us) until a sequence was found.  Being the kind benevolent professors that we are we let the class choose their sequence first, then we chose our own.  To keep things from being a single random toss we played the best of 8, with a tie going to the class. 

IF the class won they were to receive donuts from Professor Smith, but if Professor Smith and Bigelow won then the class would have to do a cheer for us..  The first sequence went to the students, so they only needed to win 3 of 7 and we would have to take 5 of 7 to win.. it wasn’t looking good!  But then S&B went on a tear and managed to pull out the victory, snatching it from the jaws of defeat…

So then we had to come up with an appropriate cheer.. what to do?  Fortunately that morning one of the students had come into class happily singing the song “Good Morning” from the musical “Singing in the Rain.”  We were struck with the inspiration that this might serve as a good foundation for our cheer.. we just need to have some different words (which Dr. Bigelow and myself quickly developed)..

Here, for your viewing pleasure are three videos.. The first is the class working on the cheer with no movement… the second adds movement and results in chaos, and the third actually qualified them for the payoff of their dues to us for losing in our competition…

Cheer/Song with no movement!

Cheer with No Choreography from pat smith on Vimeo.

Cheer/Song Plus Movement - not too good yet…

Cheer/Song with solid movement! What a great group!

Ahhh what good times… After the video session this morning our lab assistant Jonathan remembered his class’s video and went back in the block to 2009 about this time.. They had to do the wave…

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